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The Church of England being what it is, no Archbishop of Canterbury can succeed: but Rowan Williams has failed more disastrously than most

He is supposed to be a theologian: but his actions have been theologically incoherent

By on Monday, 19 March 2012

Dr Williams is likely to be a better Master of Magdalene than he was Archbishop of Canterbury (PA photo)

Dr Williams is likely to be a better Master of Magdalene than he was Archbishop of Canterbury (PA photo)

Rowan Williams’s decision to leave Lambeth Palace and to move at the end of the year (I suspect with enormous relief) into the Master’s lodge at Magdalene, Cambridge, evokes in me two distinct reactions: firstly, well, lucky old him: a prestigious job he can actually do, with no compulsory pastoral work involved, in a very agreeable place indeed, rather than a job in which he has failed disastrously — at least partly because it is one which is absolutely impossible for anyone to pull off successfully; clever old thing to swing it.

My second reaction is that though everyone is being very complimentary about his time at Canterbury — “As a man of great learning and humility,” said David Cameron, “he has guided the church through times of challenge and change. He has sought to unite different communities and offer a profoundly humane sense of moral leadership that was respected by people of all faiths and none” — despite all that, actually he has been a much greater disaster than was actually necessary. He hasn’t “guided” the Church of England at all. He has lurched, with it, from one crisis to another, as often as not making things a lot worse. He is supposed to be a distinguished theologian (a proposition about which there is, to say the least, more than one view) and also a man of integrity: but he has consistently failed to handle crises with any theological coherence (theology, incidentally, is supposed to clarify complex problems, not make them more obscure than they need be); and, as for integrity, instead of remaining true to his beliefs, he has sought to avoid conflict between opposing views in his Church not by attempting to convince those he believes are wrong but by retreating in the face of internal political pressure, sometimes changing direction in mid-stream.

The classic example is one I have written about before: the case of Dr Jeffrey John, the homosexual but (the crucial qualification) celibate Dean of St Alban’s, who was not appointed Bishop of Southwark because of Dr Williams’s veto, and who a year or so before that was not appointed Suffragan (auxiliary) Bishop of Reading, having already accepted it with Dr Williams’s encouragement, only to be told by the archbishop after he had himself been pressured by some very bigoted evangelicals (who didn’t care if Dr John was celibate or not, celibacy not being on their agenda: if he was that way inclined he was in his bones a flagrant sinner) that he must now withdraw his acceptance.

This he did after having been pressured by the same Dr Williams who had previously encouraged him to accept: this was done, according to one insider quoted by the Sunday Times, “with shocking unkindness and bullying over two miserable days. This was not just pusillanimous; it was cruel.” So here we had, as one commentator puts it, “a … woolly-minded, wordy man of inconsistent and incoherent views presiding over a miserably divided church”. The point is that this supposedly distinguished theologian simply didn’t think clearly and theologically: he went with the Anglican anti-theological flow.

As I wrote in this space after the Crown Appointments Commission caved in to pressure from Dr Williams and failed to appoint him, as its members had intended, to Southwark, “one is tempted to see this story as yet another example of a consistent Anglican incapacity to think theologically. The point about Dr John is that he is ‘celibate’: and by that he means that he and his long-term partner are chaste, that they abstain from any kind of sexual act. In other words, his behaviour is entirely consistent with article 2359 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which teaches that “Homosexual persons are called to chastity” and that “By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom… they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.”

Not only did Dr John’s appointment to Southwark not take place: the C of E did not even escape being “split from top to bottom” by his non-appointment: the fact is that Anglicanism is intrinsically divided by its theological incoherence; but, partly as a direct result of Rowan Williams’s treatment of Dr John, there is now an increasingly unpleasant edge to its divisions. Dr Williams should have resolved this matter theologically: that would have been the way a theologian of his much vaunted “integrity” should have behaved. He would have needed to keep his nerve: but the fact is that whatever he decided to do, including making the wrong decision and caving in to the baying of the theological Neanderthals, would have needed courage.

All Archbishops of Canterbury fail, quite simply because the Church of England isn’t a Church at all, it’s a theme park: you wander about and choose the rides you want to go on. It’s not there to change you but to reflect what you already are. It has no consistent theology; it has a portfolio of theologies, each one inconsistent with the others. We all know that. But Rowan Williams has simply avoided the theological dimension, and used his prestigious position as a platform for whatever philosophical or political musings his restless mind comes up with. One minute he is praising Cameron’s vision of the Big Society: a few weeks later he is attacking it, presumably having forgotten what he previously said. His mind ranges endlessly over the possibilities for our society; nothing will deter him from voicing the most eccentric and potentially divisive views. He has behaved not like a pastor but like an academic. The most notorious example, of course was the World at One interview in which he said that the adoption of Sharia law in this country was, wait for it, “unavoidable”. This is how the BBC website reported the story:

Dr Rowan Williams told Radio 4′s World at One that the UK has to “face up to the fact” that some of its citizens do not relate to the British legal system.

Dr Williams argues that adopting parts of Islamic Sharia law would help maintain social cohesion.

For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court.

He says Muslims should not have to choose between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty”.

Dr Williams said an approach to law which simply said “there’s one law for everybody and that’s all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts – I think that’s a bit of a danger”.

The whole point, of course, is that our entire democracy is built on the fundamental principle that there is one law for everyone, high or low, believer or unbeliever, and that the law protects our liberties as well as constraining and channelling them. There’s no habeas corpus in Sharia law; there’s no right in English law, furthermore, for a man to put away his wife by simply repeating “I divorce you” three times. Williams’s pronouncements on Sharia law were, said the Sunday Times commentator Minette Marrin, “a truly astonishing revelation of his unfitness for his office”. And so they were.

For the Master of Magdalene to have come out with these speculative reflections would have been just fine. But then, of course, there would have been no interview on The World at One. Nobody would have noticed; but then, there would have been no universal condemnation, no nasty media coverage, either. It is surely good, for him as well as for the Church of England, that Dr Williams is off to Cambridge now. He will doubtless cause as much local bemusement and irritation there as I remember him doing in Oxford in the 80s; but outside Cambridge, nobody will ever know.

  • Lindi

    ‘..if only he were a Catholic ‘. Well . you never know .Perhaps that’s on his mind !

  • Br Bede Falconer

    To refer to the CofE as a “theme park” is rather infantile. The Church of Rome is no haven of blessed unity by anyone’s standards. We need to realise that like it or not the world is changing, and thinking people seek to find where God’s love and the gospel can be found and applied in all these different movements and circumstances. If the Church just buried her head in the incense rather than examine, explore and if needed, adapt and change, we would all still be buying pergatorial pardons, bishoprics and endorsing wars against just about any race or culture we didn’t like or agree with; all of course with our loving God’s blessing, not!

  • Anonymous

    He has argued the same thing perfectly plainly in two separate articles and people appear to have failed to understand the argument and have instead leapt upon a straw man. It’s not your place to tell me that I should not point out the argument being made to those slow to comprehend it in the first place. I can see that what has happened here is that people have read the article, leapt to the conclusion that homosexual partnerships are being advocated (and if you’d read Dr Oddie’s articles on Vincent Nichols’ pronouncements on the subject you’d know that he certainly isn’t in favour of them) and jumped down his throat without attempting to understand the point being made. I hold no brief for Dr Oddie, but I do object to people arguing against a point that hasn’t been made. It’s the same as the misquotation of Cardinal O’Brien – he didn’t compare gay marriage to slavery at all, he said something else altogether, yet the secular media misquoted him widely. You are doing the same thing here.

  • Anonymous

    I’m doing it just as I did it when secularists misquoted Cardinal O’Brien. If you’re going to attack a columnist, you ought to make sure that you understood what he wrote.

  • Anonymous

    I read that piece last night and again today. I would like to ask how the world perceives people who identify as being Christian.  From many of the comments the world might be forgiven for understanding all Christians are sex-obsessed. What do people in the world read in the press? What do they see to be the Christian message? Controversy about gay priests or child abuse. Was this the Message?  No. Mark 12:30-31 tells us exactly what to do. And exactly what do some of us spend our time and energies doing?
    I also read not a few comments about the C of E. Should we reread John 4, particularly verse 9? Have you done that? “How readest thou?” (Luke 10:26). Bless you all †

  • Jae

    Alban, before you do that, please consider the implications of starting a new church. What separate you from any looney out there who claims to be the true church and a prophet of god?

  • theroadmaster

    The advocates of Anglicanism over the centuries have tried to portray it since the Elizabethan settlement of Tudor times as the “Via Media” which traversed a middle course through the Catholic/protestant divide over the course of 5 centuries.  But the trouble with this course, is when one stands figuratively in the middle of the doctrinal road, one is likely to be run over frequently by theological buses which one cannot avoid.  Sadly this has been the case with recent controversial issues within the anglican communion, as a lack of clear, decisive leadership and decision-making at the very top, threatens to render the Church of England a meaningless talking shop whose relevance is fast disappearing.

  • Stfrancis

    There is the Church of England and then the Anglican Communion.  

  • EndTimes101

    Another quite arrogant reply nytor, pretty much saying everyone else is too thick to understand. As you point out Mr Oddie has made the same arguments in two different articles and people have both times come back with valid points about scandal/occasions of sin etc which Mr Oddie has completely ignored, choosing only to reply to the one off abstract comments. It is up to Mr Oddie to clarify what he means NOT you. Especially as your main argument (that
    Mr Oddie was merely pointing out Anglicanism’s failure to adhere to it’s own
    standards) is invalided by the fact he quotes the Catholic Catechism when making his criticism. Clearly he is justifying his criticism from a Catholic perspective, not by the standards the CofE have set themselves…..

  • EndTimes101

    argument that Mr Oddie was merely pointing out Anglicanism’s failure to adhere
    to it’s own standards would be plausible had he not quoted the CATHOLIC
    CATECHISM when making his point. I guess in your rush to tell us all what Mr
    Oddie REALLY meant you missed that…..but it crucial as it does invalid your
    cocky defence about actually understanding what was written.

  • EndTimes101

     You have missed the point nytor. Mr Oddie quotes and justifies his criticisms of Dr Williams and the “bigoted” evangelicals using the Catholic Catechism…..

  • EndTimes101

     Then why did Mr Oddie quote the Catholic Catechism to justify his stance?

  • John Byrne

    Shame on you for trying to trivialise a warm, human and true description of a good man who has been struggling with adversity.

  • Corey F.

     And neither is a Church.  What’s your point?

  • Corey F.

    Quite frankly, what is bringing destruction to the Anglicans is the “amazing diversity” you indicate in your post.  There is no central theological leadership whatsoever; what else can the answer to conflict be other than schism?  (Especially when one’s sect is born from schism.)  I’m sorry, but being “caring and inclusive” can only go so far, especially when it leads to theological ambivalence and uncertainty.  Rowan Cantuar’s antagonists don’t care a fig about how caring or inclusive he is. 

  • John Byrne

    As a heterosexual married Catholic man with children, I applaud your comments.

    Some of the many infantile (good choice of adjective) comments from so-called “traditional” Catholics on this website seem to come from people who view their faith as an ancient antique, in constant need of protection from the environment.

  • EndTimes101

     He is in a civil partnership with another CofE “priest”. From the Catholic perspective this is not only a grave scandal but it is an obvious occasion of sin. He has never renounced his previous homosexual activities and this is what upset the Conservatives within the CofE. Under these circumstances, how then Mr Oddie can label those that objected to his appointment as bishops as “bigots” ??? There is something very rotten in Denmark….

  • lawrence

    Being in a civil partnership need not be, per se, contrary to Catholic teaching. In San Francisco, the city government required the Catholic Church to provide benefits for same-sex partners. The imaginative response of the diocese was to allow any two people, without presumption of a sexual relationship, to declare themselves domestic partners for purposes of job benefits. So if I were a living with, say, my widowed sister, I could include her and her children in my employer-provided health insurance.

  • lawrence

    Mr. Oddie writes: “The whole point, of course, is that our entire democracy is built on the fundamental principle that there is one law for everyone, high or low, believer or unbeliever, and that the law protects our liberties as well as constraining and channelling them.”

    I can’t believe Oddie is still repeating this misleading anti-Rowan propaganda. Anyone who has actually read the Temple lecture that +Rowan delivered to the assembled lawyers and judges, which coincided with the quoted interview, would know that the point of his talk was to explore how and whether the legal system can accommodate the religious beliefs and practice of citizens/subjects. While he talked mainly about Islam (because that was the topic he was given to speak on) he also called attention to how Catholic-affiliated agencies cannot function without special exemptions from certain legal requirements, and that the thoroughly secular government is increasingly reluctant to grant such exemptions. When the “one law for everyone” is rooted in an intolerant secularism, Christians need special accommodation as much as Muslims.

  • gabriel’s angels

    Dr William was right on Dr. John and right about shariah law. That law is only for Muslims and only applies to Muslims. For example if a Muslim commits theft he can have his hands choped off. If he commits audultery he can be flogged in public or stoned to death. Ok it takes us back to the 12th century, but that a matter for Muslims to decide. The law is a religious law in line with their own path and ONLY applicable to them! It will come into England in due course Rather than lambasting the rchbishop of Canterbury I suggest you applaud him as a visionary

  • EndTimes101

     What is it about so many of the posters on these blogs (and the author of the article) that, on the subject of homosexuality in particular, will take any shred of leeway in the language or situation and try to create a homosexual refuge out of it. The spirit of a FAITHFUL Catholic should always be to discourage homosexuality at every opportunity. Not look for/pick at possible loopholes while ignoring the clear spirit of Gods law. At the end of our lives we will be judged not just for what we have done but also what we failed to do. It seems the ferociousness of a small but aggressive group of militant activists has completely cowed the majority of Catholics from their responsibility to rebuke the sinner when necessary and appropriate. If someone read out loud some of the comments in the article from Mr Oddie (i.e.labelling people that genuinely disagree as bigots) and the blogs you would swear they came from homosexual activists NOT supposed Catholics. That is how far Catholics and Christianity in general have fallen…..

  • AidanCoyle

    Just because you and the Catholic Church say that the C of E is not a Church does not make it so. That conclusion is based upon some very narrow, self-interested reasoning.

  • Dr Glenn

    In my humble view, Dr Williams has consistently failed to provide the clear moral leadership particularly needed by the Anglican Church during the past decade. He was the wrong person for the times. Contrast Dr Williams’ relativistic / situational / sliding-scale morality with the unwavering clarity of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, who actually IS a deeply accomplished theologian.

    Setting aside the political origin of the Church of England, any Church that fails to provide an unambiguous moral compass will fail to earn the support of its adherents. Parishioners will vote with their feet, resulting in implosion and dissolution as the remaining factions continue their internecine struggle for what is left (control of the remaining positions, property and financial resources). This process is well-advanced in the Anglican Church. So, you have women priests and bishops, openly homosexual bishops, and an organisational climate of permissiveness in which “anything goes.” If a desired practise is prohibited or condemned in Scripture, simply re-interpret the offending Scripture. It is doubtful that enough people who desire to do whatever they want and are able to rationalise scripture to justify their desires will bother to seek absolution for their ongoing sin by supporting a failed and morally bankrupt Church. They can sin and rationalise on their own, for free. The liberal press consistently condemns our Roman Catholic Church for its clear and uncompromising advocacy of correct religious and moral principles. Whilst they may not like us for this, they also help to lead people seeking support of their effort to lead decent lives oriented toward God and their families to us. We have prepared a place before them and are ready to welcome them. 

  • RW

    “Brilliant”, like “Catholic” would seem to require consistent logic. ++Rowan fails on both counts, despite his erudition — like King James I, the title “The most educated fool in Christendom” well suits him.  
    On the bright side,  he has by his teaching & leadership given thousands  on both sides of the Atlantic many good reasons to join the Ordinariate.  

  • Tnealon

    Mr. Oddie’s insulting attitude toward evangelicals is unbecoming of a Catholic.  And surely if it is true that Dr. Jeffrey John has a ‘partner’–this is problematic and is not at all what CCC 2359 envisions.  After all, living with a partner, even if celibate, creates the appearance of sin and a scandal.

  • Anonymous

    Alternatively based on truth> As there is no way it can be Apostolic.

  • Weary Convert

    Having avoided this website for some time, I have returned to it to see what is going on.  Sadly the same old gang of Ultra Catholics appear time and again screaming their hatred of the Church as it is.  As for poor Mr Oddie, this particular item shows just how unpleasant a disappointed renegade Anglican can be.

    On this website there have been a considerable number of posts on the fall in attendance at Church, with the Ultras predictably blaming the Vatican Council and using this claim to insult hard-working Bishops. 

    I fear the reality of the fall in attendance has nothing to do with whether the Mass is in Latin, or which absurd piece of Mariolatry is the flavour of the month.  Instead the answer is quite simple: it is the utter irrelevance of religion as proclaimed, to everyday life that causes people to “resign” from Church attendance.  Until the Churches – not just the Catholic Church – accept this reality and re-examine themselves, ready to drop into the waste bin large swathes of nonsense “teaching” the fall will continue. 

    Of course this will not happen in my lifetime but until it does the chances of the Church seeing attendance rise again are small.

    Sorry to have bothered you all.  I did say months ago that I would not post here again and after this one I think I shall fall silent once more and let the Ultras continue to scrabble over the poor Church like vultures on a carcase.

  • John

    Meanwhile of course there are now well over 30,000 different and differing Christian denominations, sects and sub-sects in the world, all competing for market share in the market-place of whats-in-it-for-me consumerist religion.
    This whats-in-it-for-me syndrome or motivation is just as much the case with ALL Catholics , including right-wing or conservative “traditionalists” such as William Oddie – although they obviously like to pretend otherwise.

  • Mr. C. Lutz

    Ach!  Du lieber Gott!

  • Nicolas Bellord

    So should one just ignore child abuse?  I remember something about a millstone.

  • Brabo1098

    Hear, hear!!

  • Brabo1098

    Of course, as an Anglican he is BOTH Catholic & Reformed, as are ALL Anglicans. It is about time (again!) that ROMAN Catholics allow themselves to look over the banks of the Tiber, and not to assume that they have the world’s copyright on the word ‘catholic’!!!

  • Johnmarkgriffiths

    You glib, thoughtless, loud mouth self-righteous Pharasic hypocrite. This article is full of hot air and premiums, worthless opinion with an added dose of insecure, immature spite. Two carefully selected but cheaply presented issues and a torturous case of supplying one’s own rope to hang one’s self with the absence of any respect or sign for the actual content of his thought, work (academic or pastoral) and character. As a media commentator, let alone a so called ‘Catholic’, such neglect of insightful and valuable comment, awareness of the responsibilities of your position and the slur you have paninyed Willaims’ legacy as ABC and his future is embarrassing and worrying. Please grow up, and exercise a more maturity and depth in future.

  • Michael Moran

    It’s sad that Priests breaks Gods command to keep man’s command, I say get married chaps.

  • Frank

    There is no habeas corpus in Scots law either. It doesn’t seem to be a problem, though: instead, one presents a petition to the the nobile officium of the High Court of Justiciary.